Finding the Common Ground In Islam and Feminism
Illustration by Dini Lestari


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Finding the Common Ground In Islam and Feminism

"In my experience, learning about feminism and gender equality helped me understand Islam better."

It's been a month since men and women took to the streets in Jakarta in a show of solidarity for International Women's Day. Which means it's, sadly, been a month of trolls reposting heartwarming photos of from the march online with degrading comments and hashtags like #feminismabok (or "drunk feminist"), #sayaantifeminisme ("I'm anti feminism), and #stopfeminism.

Most of the people running these accounts have a similar criticism of feminism—that it's all part of a Western conspiracy to destroy Islam. To these people, feminism is another word for women trying to convince other women to take off their hijabs. One commenter posted, "it's no wonder women belong in hell," beneath photos from the woman's day march.


But for women like Iklilah Muzayyanah, feminism and Islam aren't two forces diametrically opposed to each other. Iklilah, an expert in both Islam and gender studies at the University of Indonesia, told me that Islam and feminism actually support one another, arguing that Islam itself promotes gender equality and supports a woman's right to make their own decisions about their body.

VICE: You've probably heard that some people think feminism is a Western import that doesn't fit in with our Eastern norms and Islamic values. What do you think of this?
Iklilah Muzayyanah: Feminism is indeed a Western ideology, but its mission and its Islamic values are alike. Just like in Islam, feminism tries to combat inequality. Feminism is in-line with Prophet Muhammad’s revelation. He fought for equality for all people. He highly respected women and cared about minorities. And that’s what feminists do too.

But what about the right to control our own bodies? These same critics say that a good Muslim woman is a woman who allows her husband or family to exert their own control over her body and her life.
Islam also teaches us to respect a woman’s choice. We can prove this. In Islam, women have the right to choose who they want to marry. When we talk about sexual relations between a married couple, it’s important to make sure that both parties give their consent. There are numerous hadith that discuss this.


Islam also forbids female circumcision. For example, there is a hadith that reads, “Do not go to the extreme in cutting; that is better for the woman and more liked by the husband.” Islamic law protects women’s body. This is another proof that feminism is not that different from Islam.

Where does the LGBTQ community fit into Islam?
If you ask me about my stance, the way I see it, Islam only allows for heterosexual relationships. It has to do with procreation. Homosexual couples can’t procreate. But if you ask me where I position LGBTQ issues in my social life, I would say that someone's sexual orientation is their own choice. We have to respect their choices and their rights. We can’t judge whether they’re a sinner or not. That’s strictly their business with God.

As Muslims we have no right to judge people and say things like “Oh you must be a sinner. You're definitely going to hell." We don't even know for sure if a person who prays the most out of everyone will die khusnul khotimah, or while doing a good deed. As Muslims, we shouldn’t be arrogant even if we’ve done a lot of good deeds. Whether or not we go to heaven is entirely up to God’s blessing and forgiveness. That’s it. So when we talk about the LGBTQ community, I always try to emphasize that it’s the rights of every individual. And their choices are their responsibility to God alone. But we have to respect their choices, and not use it as a way to justify violence against them.


So you don't believe people who say you can't be a good Muslim and a feminist at the same time?
In my experience, learning about feminism and gender equality helped me understand Islam better. Back in the day, I had a lot of questions about some of the practices in Islam. Polygamy is one of them. It made me think, "is this really what Islam about? Is Allah really like that? How is Allah fair when a husband can have a second wife without his first wife’s permission?" But as I started learning about feminism and gender, I've come to understand Islam better—to understand the spiritual values in every rule and law of Islam. I've become more convinced that this is the right religion for me.

For me, it's important that we learn feminist theories so that, as Muslims, we're not just following the crowd—but accepting a concept, an interpretation, a teaching, with a critical mind.

So what do you think about polygamy now?
It depends on the context. If you talk about the history, the verse in Quran doesn’t only talk about the practice of polygamy but also about the protection of orphans. In the verse, polygamy is just a negotiation, to put it simply. But this negotiation model does not mean you can commit polygamy just because you feel like it. From my understanding and interpretation of polygamy, Islam recommends monogamy. Polygamy should be seen as a last resort in a very difficult situation. It’s not as easy as what you see in Indonesia. It's more about protecting orphans, which, in most conversations, we tend to forget. What's happened is that now society emphasizes more on how Islam allows polygamy, and forgets all about the context of that verse. We fail to see the essence of it.

A different verse also mentions that polygamy requires fairness. And in yet another verse, it says that people who commit polygamy can never be fair. God is certain that human beings cannot be fair even if we try. That being said, maybe it's saying don’t commit polygamy. Because one of the conditions and requirements of committing polygamy is fairness.

In your view, Islam and feminism have a lot more in common than most people think?
Islam’s spirit is implemented through advocacy. The same goes with feminism. In Islam, there are ways and recommendations in regards to advocacy. But feminist theories and movements help strengthen Islam’s advocacy for justice. The two complement each other.

This interview has been translated, condensed, and edited for content and clarity.